A funny thing happened when my mother passed away: I began to feel more unconditional love and compassion toward her than I’d ever felt while she was alive.
During her lifetime Irene was famous for being as judgmental as God. And though I wasn’t her sole target—my father held the number one spot until his death in 1998—I followed close on his heels. Whenever my mother and I met, I got the single-raised-eyebrow treatment. The Look, as she slowly surveyed me from head to toe. My frizzy hair. My hippie clothes. My weight. Even my face. During my teen years she often asked, “Honey, are you sure you don’t want to get a nose job?” Irene had been the unofficial Belle of Pittsburgh back in the day, and good looks (i.e. being thin!) were the gateway to her heart. Growing up, I felt we were as mismatched as a mother and daughter could be, like two landmasses that don’t fit together—say Greenland and New Jersey.
But Irene’s criticism of me didn’t stop with my physical appearance. There were all the things I did: The way I was raising my son (“you’re turning him into a mama’s boy), my choice of career (“they pay you to write?”), where I lived (far away from her). And late in my mother’s life, after she broke her hip and I moved her from Florida to a retirement home near me in Washington, D.C., she carried on endlessly about how everyone else’s daughters were more loving, more attentive, than I was. “Those girls are so wonderful,” she’d say wistfully, her eyes moist with tears. “Every day they come and take their mothers out to lunch.”
Forget that I’d jumped through ten thousand hoops—including her fierce resistance—to move her to a place where she’d be safe and I could look after her, in her eyes I still didn’t measure up. Forget that I worked (I did get paid to write) and didn’t have the time—or inclination—to become a lady who lunches.
Having felt unseen by my mother for as long as I could remember, I played the part of the dutiful daughter, but my usually open heart turned to stone whenever she was within range. The fact that we were living in close proximity for the first time in forty years did little to soften it. Still, I went through the motions and did all the things dutiful children of elderly parents do. I took Irene to doctors’ appointments, of which there were many, and held her hand when she went in for scary tests. I took her grocery shopping. I helped her with her finances. My husband and I threw birthday bashes for her at our house and had her over to dinner often—and, sometimes, I even took her out to lunch.
All the while I wondered: Were my actions a form of love, even though my heart still felt as if it were encased in some sort protective device, like a bulletproof vest?
Was that why I’d failed to notice that since moving to D.C., Irene had stopped criticizing me so much? That she’d begun expressing more gratitude than disappointment? That she’d finally begun to see me.
Thankfully, on the last Mother’s Day we spent together, shortly before she died, I understood that it was she who had changed and now it was my turn to catch up. The point was driven home when she handed me a card penned in her wobbly, 95-year-old scrawl. “Happy Mother’s Day,” she’d written. “I know why Clay (my son) turned out to be such a wonderful person. You have been a great mother. I know this is true because you have been a good mother to me. I thank you for your caring and helping me in every way.”
In the few weeks Irene had left, I kept vigil by her bedside and started to catch up. I told her I loved her and that I would miss her. This time there was no holding back, no going through the motions, no saying I love you with half a heart. I realized I really did love her, had always loved her, but had been too defended against her stinging barbs—which, I see now, had much more to do with her own lack of self-worth than with me—to let myself feel the love. Mine. Or hers.
And now I find myself wishing she’d been right all those times when, with one perfectly sculpted brow pointing north, she joked, “I’m much too mean to ever die.”
Barbara Graham is the author of What Jonah Knew, a psychological thriller due out from HarperCollins on July 5, 2022.